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Willis Whichard: Graduates, childrens’ right to education rests in your hands

Following is the prepared text of Justice Willis Whichard’s remarks – entitled “Implementing Leandro” – at the School of Education’s graduation ceremony on May 12, 2018 in the Dean E. Smith Center:

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Watch Justice Willis Whichard’s Commencement Speech

You have passed your tests, completed your papers, and survived your exam periods. You have come here today, as a consequence, considering yourselves ready to graduate. And then you get a commencement speaker who says “no, sorry, I have one more question for you.” How dare he!

But here is the question, to be answered in your minds only. Which provision of the United States Constitution guarantees to every child in this country the right to a sound basic education?

If you know the answer, you recognize this as a trick question. There is no such provision.

The United States Constitution is a remarkable document. For 230 years it has held us together as a people and given us rights and privileges largely unknown to humanity previously. But it does not address a subject this audience would consider very fundamental, the right to education.

North Carolina is ahead of the country in this respect. Its constitution explicitly guarantees the right to a free public education. Article I, Section 15 provides: “The people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the state to guard and maintain that right.” Article IX, section 2 (1) then directs the General Assembly to provide “for a general and uniform system wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.”

Rarely, though, are constitutional provisions self-implementing. Rights, however noble in concept, can ring hollow when unclaimed or unenforced. In the mid-1990s that is what several North Carolina school districts said about this one. The fundamental right to an education, they contended in Leandro v. State of North Carolina, lacked substance unless every child, no matter where in the state the child resided, had equal educational opportunities.

The State of North Carolina responded that the case presented “nonjusticiable political questions.” An intermediate appellate court concluded that the right “is limited to one of equal access to the existing system of education and does not embrace a qualitative standard.” The case thus, it said, should have been dismissed. This was the posture in which the case arrived at the Supreme Court of North Carolina, on which I then sat.

Our court disagreed. There is indeed, it said, qualitative content to the right. It is a right to a sound basic education. “An education that does not serve the purpose of preparing students to participate and compete in the society in which they live and work,” it elaborated, “is devoid of substance and is constitutionally inadequate.” The court appropriately recognized that administration of the public schools of the state is best left to the legislative and executive branches of government. It nevertheless emphatically affirmed the duty of the judicial branch to grant declaratory relief if the other branches fail to fulfill their constitutional obligations.

Over two decades have passed since the supreme court’s ruling, and our courts still wrestle with its implementation. Recently a court denied the State Board of Education’s motion to dismiss it from the suit. The board, the court concluded, was not supervising and administering a public-school system that complied with the state constitution as interpreted in Leandro. It found a record replete with evidence that the right there defined “continues to be denied to hundreds of thousands of North Carolina children.”

The parties have since agreed to retain a consultant to advise them on how to fulfill the Leandro mandate. And, the governor has established a commission charged with further definition and implementation of this fundamental right of every child in the state to a sound basic education. The dean of this school is a member, and we should thank him for his service and wish him and his colleagues well in this endeavor.

More important for our purposes on this occasion, however, today new recruits join the forces striving to implement this fundamental constitutional right. Legislators, governors, and judges have their place in this long struggle to fulfill our resolve that there should be no elite of the mind in this state and country – to achieve Governor Charles Brantley Aycock’s vision of the royal right of every child to have the opportunity to burgeon out all there is within him or her. But classroom teachers are the indispensable front-line troops.

The profession you enter today is an ancient and learned one. As stated by the North Carolina Teachers Assembly in the late nineteenth century: “The office of the teacher is as old as civilization. It was a forerunner of all the professions. It was before law, before statesmanship. Indeed, teaching was [the] soil out of which these grew.…”

As graduates of this school, it now becomes your role to advance the vision of Archibald Murphey. A state senator from here in Orange County in the early nineteenth century, when North Carolina was known as the “Rip Van Winkle” state for its multi-faceted backwardness, Murphey urged the state to develop its economy through internal improvements. This, he rightly believed, would enable the requisite production of revenues to fund universal public education.

Almost a decade later the North Carolina General Assembly established a Literary Fund through which to begin setting aside money for public education. This, Governor David Swain would say, laid the foundation for a school system “as extensive as our limits, and as enduring as our prosperity,” ultimately affording the blessings of universal public education to the state’s children. Later, while president of this university, Swain would draft the plan for a public-school system. And in 1840, we get the first public school in the state, at least in a nascent modern sense.

The American Civil War devastated much of the state’s progress in public education. But the state had visionary leaders like Walter Hines Page, who now saw education not just as a means for the teaching of youth but also for “the building of a new social order.” Educational reforms now bridged the transition from a plantation to a commercial economy. The classroom came to be viewed as the progenitor of a new culture and a new way of life.

The state professionalized teacher training to serve the needs of the classroom revolution. It built new schoolhouses at an astonishing rate and developed an elaborate bureaucracy to administer the instruction of youth. The graded classroom, normative to us but controversial in its origins, replaced classrooms that contained children of all ages and greatly varying abilities. And far too much later, we moved past the sad days of a racially segregated system to a time when the U.S. Supreme Court required that there be neither black schools nor white schools but “just schools.”

Throughout this history of reform and progress, education has been deemed to serve not just individual student purposes but also societal ones. Even as the Civil War ravaged our country, the Illinois superintendent of schools declared that the “chief end” of education was “to make good citizens.” That has not changed, and it will not.

We live in a STEM-emphasis world. The importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is beyond dispute. But so is the significance of the humanities. They are the heart and soul of our ability to sustain our democracy; and without a vibrant, well-functioning democracy, the technological advancements and national-security interests that the STEM courses sustain and promote are at considerable risk.

I thus appeal to those of you who will teach in the humanities. As you prepare your students to assume their proper roles in a twenty-first-century American democracy, it is essential that they develop informed perspectives on politics and political participation. I recognize that I am using words with a discordant ring to many people these days. But that should not be the case.

Properly understood and applied, politics is just what we do together absent tyranny or aristocracy. As in the days of Washington or Jefferson, Lincoln or Kennedy, human experience and human aspirations are the materials of politics, and reasoned argument and honorable compromise are the civilized ways of conducting politics. The term, in itself, is neither good nor bad. Political activity is simply necessary to order our lives together in society; and politics, and the governments produced from political activity, are what we make them.

Vaclav Havel, the Czech statesman and writer, has an eloquent word on this subject for you as teachers. “Let us teach both ourselves and others,” Havel has said, “that politics does not have to be the art of the possible, especially if this means the art of speculating, calculating, intrigues, secret agreements, and pragmatic maneuvering, but that it can also be the art of the impossible, that is the art of making both ourselves and the world better.”

In his farewell address when leaving the United States Senate, Frank Porter Graham, one of my father’s favorite teachers in this university, spoke of an America “of our struggles and hopes” in which

the least of these our brethren has the freedom to struggle for freedom; where the answer to error is not terror, the respect for the past is not reaction and the hope for the future is not revolution; where the integrity of simple people is beyond price and the daily toil of millions is above pomp and power; where the majority is without tyranny and the minority without fear, and all people have hope.

I commend those aspirations to you as you leave this grand old place to prepare our future leaders and the voters who will elect them and, hopefully, hold them accountable.

I deviate once more from the notion that you’ve taken your last exam. I have one more question for you – not for a school exam, but for the exam of life. It is the question posed to Mitch Album by his favorite teacher, Morrie Schwartz: “[a]re you trying to be as human as you can be?”

Whatever your teaching area, your ultimate subject, like Morrie’s, will be the meaning of life. You will teach that, as he did, from experience – your own and that of historical and literary figures on whom you will draw in your classrooms. In doing so you will enhance your students’ humanity, and in the process, you will enhance your own.

Robert Kennedy is among the historical figures on whom you might draw. In addressing an audience in South Africa in 1966, Kennedy said:

It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man [or woman] stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he [or she] sends forth a tiny ripple of hope and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

As teachers you will be among those sending forth these “tiny ripple[s] of hope” that build those larger and more impactful currents.

Among the literary figures on whom you might draw is the modern American novelist and poet Wendell Berry. In Berry’s poem “Rising,” he notes that “any man’s [or woman’s] death could end the story.” He proceeds, though, to say:

There is a grave too, in each survivor. By it the dead one lives. He [or she] enters us, a broken blade, sharp, clear as a lens or mirror.

As teachers, you will live on, “a broken blade, sharp, clear as a lens or mirror,” in your students, and through them, in many others. “A teacher affects eternity,” Henry Adams said, “he [or she] can never tell where his [or her] influence stops.”

Do you now see why I said that in your hands, above all others, rests the implementation of the constitutional aspiration, or right, of every child to a sound basic education? My final word to you on this significant occasion thus is not a question but an order from the judge: never, ever, forget how important you are to the students you teach, and through them, to the larger community, the state, the country, and the world.

Thanks for inviting me to share this occasion with you. Congratulations, and all the best.